France and Britain were poised to clash today at European Union talks seeking to end London’s decades-old opt-out of the EU’s 48-hour maximum working week.
EU employment ministers in Brussels, Belgium, will try to close loopholes in a 1993 labour law that have given Britain and other opponents exemptions from the working time rules.
France, backed by Italy and Spain, wants Britain to agree to a date by which its opt-out to the rules comes to an end.
France has a 35-hour work week and sees all opt-outs as giving its EU counterparts an unfair advantage in Europe’s markets.
However, British officials said Trade and Industry Secretary Alistair Darling was expected to block any French moves to curtail its labour laws.
British employers’ groups have warned that restricting hours would damage the economy and put in jeopardy jobs of workers who regularly exceed the 48-hour limit.
London wants companies and workers to come to voluntary agreements, while Germany and Poland also want countries to have flexibility in applying the working time limit.
The EU ministers are under pressure to reach a deal. EU Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner Vladimir Spidla warned that if no deal is reached he could step up legal action against violators of the current rules – currently most of the 25 EU nations.
“We have to do our utmost to try and reach an agreement,” Spidla said.
The EU’s highest court last year ruled that the labour law should also apply to doctors, nurses and other emergency workers such as firefighters, and that hours when they are “on call,” but not actually working should be included in the 48-hour maximum.
EU officials worry that if the status of emergency workers is not resolved, Europe could soon face a shortage of doctors, who are growing increasingly frustrated over their working hours and are opting not to work in hospitals.
Finland’s labour minister Tarja Filatov, who will chair the talks, has presented a compromise plan which would allow workers the flexibility to work up to 60 hours a week, but only over a three-month period.